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Freeze-dried chicken feet and The Three Gorges

by Victoria Lubbock

Time to see the Three Gorges in the Hubei Province of China is running out. Of course, luxury cruises will continue to be on offer but as each day passes, ancient villages and farms along the way become submerged as the water level from the 600 kilometre stretch of the monstrous (and impressive) dam displace nearly two million people.

Travelling with my husband Alan in October last year from Yichang to, we think (more later) Baidicheng in the Qutang Gorge where we 'jumped ship' catching a local bus to Chongquing, this was one of the most eventful (and challenging) episodes of the two months we spent in China .

Arriving by bus at Yichang, we deposited our rucksacks at left luggage at the main bus terminal, and following a good walk around the area, booked into the resplendent and upmarket 4* Yichang International Hotel, overlooking the Yangtze River and the impressive and new(ish) blue and white concrete suspension bridge. The 29th floor of the hotel hosted a revolving restaurant with 'Western' and Chinese buffet menus (both fab). Dinner, bed and breakfast came to an astonishing £17.00 each!

Next day we signed up for a three-day Three Gorges cruise on an exclusively Chinese vessel (staff and tourists alike). The 'First Class' cabin was comfy and a bit shabby but sufficiently passable with its own shower (no towels), western loo and twin beds plus TV showing the usual diet of 'Emperor and Concubine' soap operas. The food on board was unspeakable but thankfully an in-house shop saved us in the form of pot noodles and freeze-dried chicken feet. Geared mainly to the local tourist market, we declined to participate in the popular Karaoke Bar, preferring to sit outside on deck and watch the Gorges drift by. I say watch but it was more glimpse as the Gorges themselves were often shrouded in a thick mist, clearing once in a while for the most impressive sights dampened only by an ever-present loudspeaker commentary in Chinese.

We weren't aboard more than five minutes when the 'English-speaking' guide appeared, managing to sell us an on-board 'Privileges Card' for 5 Yuan. We never quite discovered what the privileges were but decided to go the whole hog and, for a further 125 Yuan, signed up for an organised 4-hour coach trip to Three Gorges Dam trip with Chinese-speaking guide the next day.

Every now and then for the rest of our first evening on board, the boat would dock and loudspeaker announcements resonate but as we never understood these, we missed three 'pit stops' before realizing that we could actually get off the boat and wander about a bit in a local village or night market.

The next day, we disembarked for our Three Gorges Dam trip, stopping on the way at a strange and unfathomable spot called "Emperor Stopping The Flood", displaying two ancient corpses in formaldehyde that I assume had been dredged up during the course of excavations. Again, our lack of language prevented us from understanding much more. But the dam trip itself was worthwhile and the scale of the project has to be seen to be believed.

Early the next morning (5.45 am with a rousing knock on our door) we joined a guided party for the five-hour trip to see the Three Little Gorges, transferring to a small, single enclosed deck barge-type boat, able to negotiate through some of the narrower waterways. It was cramped and basic, stopping at a soon-to-be-submerged village every once in a while for refreshments. When the mists cleared, we could see wild monkeys scavenging on fruit scraps, almost certainly left there to attract them to eye level, but engaging nonetheless.

Another early start the next day, we had asked to get off the boat at Baidicheng which we understood to be a recognised stopping point about half way along to Chongqing. As dawn was breaking and a relentless drizzle setting in, the boat pulled up and docked. Our 'English-speaking guide', who, as far as we could tell, had mastered only the word "Yes", disembarked with us to show us where we could catch the bus.

In retrospect, we might have realised it was, perhaps, not a recognised stop when a) no-one else got off the boat and b) he signalled for us to roll up our trousers and wade through a paddy field, carrying our heavy rucksacks and trusty guidebook. I declined and, through a combination of sign language and hard cash, managed to secure a motorbike with driver to get us to the bus terminal. As my husband disappeared on the first leg of that journey, I wondered when we might be reunited again!

Eventually, I too, waved goodbye to the guide and we joined a local bus which wended its way for 1.5 hours down a steep and narrow mountain road, swerving to avoid boulders that had fallen crashed down onto the road in the night. (It occurred to me more than once during this journey that perhaps it wasn’t just dark when these awesome granites unexpectedly gave up their long and ancient fight against gravity). Eventually we arrived at Wanxian from where we caught a long distance bus to Chongqing, a fascinating and modern city. Here we stayed at the very nice Chao Tina Men Hotel, a mid-range hotel with the most fab restaurant attached next door. As the only ‘Lao-why’ (Western foreigners) we were grateful for the volunteered assistance of a young waiter, keen to practice his English, who helped us out with the menu. Be aware, food in this region can be HOT HOT HOT and ‘Braised Chillie Frog isn’t to everyone’s taste!

Chongqing, the end point for most tourists ‘doing’ The Three Gorges, is a modern thriving city. There are steep inclines to negotiate, great shopping, plenty of outlets from which to organise onward travel. It’s an interesting place to walk around (with the ever-present sound of an electronic version of "Happy Birthday to you" emanating from the waste disposal trucks as they scoop up the rubbish.) I wasn’t so keen, however, on the endangered species fur traders that hustled their long-dead prey on the streets.

In summary, the Three Gorges is well-worth seeing but you have to be reasonably hardy to do the trip as local Chinese people do it. In any event, with large billboards displaying the water height in metres, effectively announcing the demise of each and every dwelling and village at certain points, you will need to go soon.

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